20. Marcus Verus
“Decimus, what is happening in my city?” the emperor spoke from atop his dais in the Senate Hall. It should have been a rumbling demand, an inquisition of accountability rolling down the wide aisle between the rows of tiered seats. Instead it was the groan of a man who wished he were anywhere else. Even the golden statue of Victory, behind him, seemed dulled this morning.
Decimus Appius, the newly-installed prefect of the Praetorian Guard, launched into a recounting of the night’s events before the listless senate–the rampage of a Suburran mob across Quirinal Hill, culminating in the sacking of Trajan’s Market and the theft of a tenth of Rome’s total grain stores.
Marcus had heard it all already, from the lips of a breathless messenger before sunrise. Marcus had jolted awake, gasping, at the first knocks on his manor doors. His heart pounded, having escaped dreams of teeth and ripping flesh. He nearly thanked the messenger for saving him from the nightmares.
His experience was in no way unique. The entire senate sat weary. Bloodshot eyes and stooped backs. No one had slept well in days. Directly across the Hall’s aisle Paullus hunkered in his seat, his skin pale and his hair limp. His body gave the impression of too much wear; ragged at the edges. The emperor looked worse, like he’d been scoured from the inside. A vision came to Marcus of the two of them gorging on the corpse of yesterday’s monster, cramming their stomachs to bursting, until all they’d eaten came up in a gush of vomit. Then repeating it. Insatiably. How long would it take to consume an entire beast of that size? How much binging and expelling?
Decimus finished with a description of this morning’s growing turmoil. Frightened masses descended on Rome’s dispensaries, demanding their full month’s ration before it could be stolen from under them. Praetorians were deployed by the hundreds to disperse them. The emperor’s face grew darker the longer Decimus spoke.
“And what are you doing about this?”
“My emperor, I am doubling the guard assigned to patrol all public areas, and tripling those assigned to guard grain stores and dispensaries. Those that were given leave for the duration of the Anniversary have been recalled.”
A stupid answer. Anyone who’d spent a few years in Rome would know what the emperor really cared about. Decimus had been a delightfully poor choice to replace Gaius.
“The grain, Decimus. What are you doing to get it back?”
Marcus noted Decimus’s eyes darting to Paullus briefly, seeking direction, but missed whatever signal Paullus gave him. “Emperor Pius, sir, I’ve moved a full cohort of Praetorian Guard into the Suburra to question the residents and search the tenements–”
“–and I’ve posted a reward of two hundred denarii for names of the leaders. That’s the most I’m allowed without prior Senate approval.”
Marcus tapped his cane twice on the senate floor. It was time to stir up trouble. The emperor sighed and acknowledged him with a wave of his hand.
“This is disgraceful,” Marcus stated, his gaze falling to Paullus. “You offer these ruffians silver, after they menaced the city’s aristocracy? After they befouled a temple courtyard, looted Trajan’s Market, and killed our soldiers?”
“Murdered!” Lorentius shouted from two rows back. “Slaughtered in cold blood!” Good old Lorentius, he knew how to stoke fury. Marcus would reward him with a high position when this was all over.
A handful of hisses rose from Paullus’s side of the hall, but no retorts. Paullus raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms. “You act like Rome’s citizens are your enemies,” he replied. “Do you see barbarians everywhere, now? To me, they are my fellow man. The Praetorian Guard will work with the residents of the Suburra to find these killers.”
Paullus certainly had informers and allies within the slums as well. Sextus had assured Marcus that they were scattered and ineffectual. A twinge of doubt pricked at Marcus. Could they actually orchestrate a betrayal of the rioters?
“Yes, go begging for help from those who attacked Rome herself,” Marcus responded. “See how far that gets you.”
The emperor raised a weary hand to forestall them. “And what do you propose, Marcus? More bloodshed?”
Just the opening he’d been waiting for.
“Under experienced leadership, bloodshed would be unnecessary. Until this crisis is over, I would reinstate Gaius Maximus as prefect of the Praetorian Gua– ”
“Unacceptable,” Emperor Pius cut him off.
A murmur washed over the Traditionalist faction on Marcus’s side of the hall. Marcus sat back in his chair. He kept a renegade smile locked tightly behind his somber mask. The more that Pius supported Decimus, the more he’d be tarred by the prefect’s failures. A perfect opportunity for Marcus to demonstrate his disdain for Decimus, to draw the distinction between himself and the emperor.
“In that case perhaps it is best to treat these thugs with deference,” sniffed Marcus. “Decimus is inexperienced in dealing with the delicacies of urban order, and I wouldn’t want to try him too early. I will personally triple the amount of the offered reward, to help his efforts.”
“I am no child,” Decimus growled.
“No appeasement for animals!” Lorentius objected from Marcus’s side, as an angry spit of “We don’t need your money,” came from Paullus’s.
“The only animals here are the ones who would slaughter their fellow Romans in a blind panic,” retorted Paullus. His eyes had brightened, his body enlivened by the joy of political battle. He straightened in his seat, sitting forward to pursue his prey. “You would kill hundreds to find a handful of the guilty?”
“We must do something,” spoke a hesitant voice from Paullus’s faction, back in the third tier of seats. “My niece was manhandled in the Temple square last night. My niece!”
Paullus shot the man a furious glare, promising consequences. But the solidarity of the New Hedonists had cracked, and now fear pushed its way through that opening.
“Two of my clients lost months of inventory in the looting,” came another voice from Paullus’s group, Neranius. “If the grain can be recovered, so should their linens.”
“I assure you Decimus will bring order,” Paullus stated.
“The mob will laugh at you!” Lucius, from Marcus’s side.
“Enough!” The emperor’s exasperated yell was followed by the crash of spears against shields, settling the hall into silence again. The emperor pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t care about your petty squabbles. I do care that a mob of criminals has stolen from Rome–from me!–and has menaced the better class of Roman. It falls on me to keep Rome secure. To see that our citizens are safe against violence, and starvation.
“Paullus, you will ensure that all events sponsored by the state continue to provide bread without interruption. The Colosseum and the Circus most of all. Keep the populace happy.
“Decimus, you will recover the lost grain. Do not fail me.
“And Marcus, as you are so eager to help, you will personally fund and oversee the disbursement of the reward money, at quadruple the base rate.”
Visualizing his son at his side, Marcus squeezed the boy’s hand in triumph. The emperor either didn’t know or didn’t care that there wasn’t enough grain left in Rome to fulfill his orders while continuing the dole to the poor. There would be more riots. With Marcus supplying the rioters and undermining the Praetorians, Decimus would crumble. Soon even the emperor’s staunchest allies would turn against him.
Marcus cast a glance to his right, caught his son grinning with pride. Only he could see the ghost, and that was as it should be. A private celebration for a private victory.
“Now then,” the emperor sighed, retreating back into passivity. “Is there anything else we have to dispense with before I can commence the day’s games?”
Marcus only half-listened as the morning’s business proceeded, allowing Lucius to take the fore. The vision of Quintus slowly faded as Marcus considered his next moves. He did, at one point, take several minutes to bask in Paullus’s glare, brimming with spite. It filled him with sharp satisfaction.
An hour passed, the rushed session nearly complete, when a messenger burst into the hall. The man dripped sweat and gasped for air, but a wild grin broke across his face as he caught sight of the emperor. He braced his hands on his knees and wheezed out words with every exhalation.
“My emperor! Good news! Just arrived. If I–I may…”
“Yes, yes, out with it.”
“Ships coming. From Egypt. Ten ships. Mid-sized.” The messenger paused for the span of a second to swallow water brought to him. “Fully loaded. With grain. Under full guard. Will arrive. In two days.”
A sick chill sunk into Marcus’s spine and wormed down into his stomach. Ten mid-sized ships, fully loaded. Over three thousand tons of grain. In a normal year this would be a routine shipment, maybe not even the only one in a week. But right now, it constituted over twice as much grain as was left in the whole city. Ten times more than trickled in each day. With this influx, Rome could hold off starvation for weeks. By then, maybe Egypt could get another shipment past Marcus’s brother in Syria. Or perhaps some other source would be found.
Marcus fought to keep his breathing steady. He couldn’t show the icy fear eating into his guts, not with everything he’d already sacrificed. He could still salvage this. He raised his head and smiled, playing the leader. Inner fears didn’t matter. What mattered was what others saw.
“Well, Paullus, it looks like you’re saved!” Marcus called out jovially. First things first–he couldn’t let Paullus avert the looming disaster in the Suburra. Fortunately Paullus hated Marcus as much as Marcus hated Paullus. Marcus smirked at him. “Looks like you won’t have to send your new man into the jaws of the Suburra after all! We can let the rabble keep their grain, and the Praetorian Guard will remain unmolested. Fortune has smiled upon us all today.”
Decimus spoke before Paullus could reply. “I proved myself a hundred times over in Germania!” the prefect snapped.
“I’m very aware of your adequacy in Germania,” Marcus replied, honeyed acid dripping from the words.
“Again with your son?” Paullus demanded in affected irritation. The ice in Marcus’s gut spiked out into his veins, and he held his breath. “Will we never hear the end of that? Men die in wars. You sent him to one. Accept your guilt. You killed your son; Decimus is not to blame. He is just as fine a prefect as Gaius ever was. Twice so, having seen real war.”
Marcus’s smirk froze into a knife-edged rictus. He struggled to retain his focus. He couldn’t let the facade crack here, not with so much on the line. He felt his son’s presence come rushing back to his side. Quintus gripped Marcus’s hand, encouraging him. “So says Paullus, renowned expert on warfare,” Marcus sneered. “Your experience is… uncountable. It’s a good thing we won’t have to test Decimus after all.”
Emperor Pius frowned. “No, Marcus. The mob still has my grain. I will not allow that.”
“Indeed,” Paullus affirmed. “Decimus will restore order, and Marcus will eat his own words.”
“The Suburra is not an orderly place,” said Marcus.
“The Praetorians will make it orderly,” Paullus declared. “Decimus will see to it.”
“I shudder to think what sort of monstrous clusterfuck a New Hedonist considers ‘order’.” Guffaws broke out around him. Marcus had chosen the words deliberately–there were rumors regarding the fate of the first monster’s corpse. Paullus narrowed his eyes, but quickly Marcus held up a peremptory hand. “No, I was hasty.” His work was done for now. “I retract my words, and I yield.”
“And just when we were getting somewhere,” the emperor lamented dryly. “Is there anything else?”
Lucius took up the reins again as Marcus’s mind ranged elsewhere, submerging him into the next problem. With the Praetorians marching into the Suburra the fires of unrest would grow, but he still had to stop those ships. How could he sink a fleet under full naval protection? He had only two days. It would take intervention by the gods themselves.
Hell, he’d take help from the gods at this point, if he could find some consistent way to petition them. The Roman gods or the Egyptian gods, or any other gods for that matter.
With dawning trepidation, Marcus realized there might be a way. A vile way. A path paved by the emperor himself.
Marcus stood in a filthy cell tucked into a corner of the Ludus of the Bestiari. Down the hall, out of earshot, his guards kept prying eyes away. The barbarian wizard lay on a cot before him. A teenage barbarian slave knelt between them, acting as translator.
The floor of the cell glistened with blood and bile. The air hung thick with the stink of rotting viscera and burned toxins. Marcus had compelled this meeting just as they’d finished preparing some foul spell. The room brimmed with its power. Quintus’s spirit refused to approach this place, he’d stayed well behind when Marcus came to the Ludus.
“You are a great man,” the slave girl translated the wizard’s words. “The eye of God is upon you.”
“Yes. I command many men, including the one who owns you.” Marcus spoke directly to the twisted old barbarian. The statement’s implications were obvious. He meant for it to linger, oppressive in the stinking cell as he stood over them. Instead, the air closed around him in a strangling grip. He shook his head to clear it, but the feeling of psychic burial remained. The barbarian’s roving eyes leered at him. The map of tattoos across his body seemed to stay still in the room as the old man shifted, propping himself up on an elbow, before they snapped back into position on his skin. Like they existed outside of him, black lines etched on the universe, only using him as a reference when they remembered to do so. The wrongness of it crawled into Marcus’s flesh.
“I have a use for your magic, if it is powerful enough,” Marcus said quickly. “In return, I can give you nearly anything you wish for. Freedom, health, riches. If it is powerful enough.” He was foundering. The wizard was supposed to be the one to speak after Marcus’s implied threat, to ask what Marcus wanted. Marcus had broken first. The sickness in the world, concentrated in this room, flustered him. He wanted to escape before it could permeate him. He felt it pressing in. The angles of the room didn’t quite come to true.
The old man wheezed as the girl translated.
“You are the second man in this place that has caught God’s eye. That brings a great tide of power to an area. In all his life, the revered elder has not seen such a gathering of divine attention. He finds it…” the girl struggled to find a suitable word, and finally settled on “…interesting. Name your task, and he will tell you the price.”
Marcus frowned. Somehow he’d lost the initiative to this crippled savage. It was his foul magic. A sour taste filled Marcus. Not just his mouth, but his whole being. He recalled the reports that had come from Gaul after the last time he’d enlisted the help of black magics. The rot that warped fruit into a color no man could describe. The infants who would only stare and breathe, until they silently starved to death in their mother’s arms. He couldn’t commission such evil again. It brought gorge up into his mouth to think of it. He should leave this room this instant.
“Ten ships sail to Rome, laden with grain. They are due in two days. They must never arrive here.”
Maybe the price could be paid by Marcus alone. He had already given so much to save his city, he could give the rest as well. If he failed at this, he was lost anyway. His enemies would murder him, and carve up his holdings among them. They could enjoy them for what decades remained before the empire collapsed and the barbarian hordes gutted them all.
The barbarian wizard sucked his rotten teeth, then rasped a question. Marcus would kill him when this was over. He’d strangle him with his bare hands, then burn the body, and then demolish the Ludus and burn the rubble, until every last taint of black horror was purged from his city.
“Is it the ships themselves that must not arrive, or the grain they carry?” the girl asked.
A series of questions followed, regarding distance, which had to be described in days of walking. Questions about the amount of grain, described in cartloads. And so forth. Marcus’s head swam as he worked through the estimates. He noticed the stink in the room grew stronger when the old man spoke. It emanated from his diseased mouth. Marcus held his lips tight, speaking through the thinnest slit he could. He feared the stench crawling into him, rooting itself into his lungs.
“The spell will take over a day to cast, so we must begin soon,” the girl said, once they finished their examination. “There will be many magical components we require, distasteful things, but the revered elder no longer doubts Roman willingness to do what is needed. The difficult part will be the grain…” she sought a word again, “…reflection.”
“Which is what?”
“To destroy the grain on the ships, we must destroy similar grain ourselves at the end of the spell.”
Ah. Marcus closed his eyes and slumped back in relief. That was that, then. He couldn’t destroy an equal amount of grain here. There wasn’t three thousand tons of grain in all of Rome. He gave silent thanks to the gods.
The girl mistook his reaction for dismay. “I’m not saying it right,” she amended. “It doesn’t need to be exactly the same. Just a bit. A small portion of how much you wish to destroy on the ships. A tenth will do.”
Marcus’s mouth dried up. Three hundred tons of grain. He knew exactly where to get three hundred tons of grain. He’d hidden that amount in storehouses within the city, lying in wait to frame Paullus.
It was to be his killing stroke. All the false paperwork was in order, demonstrating Paullus’s misappropriation of imperial resources. At the peak of the riots Marcus would present the senate with proof that Paullus had concealed that grain, and begun covertly selling it at outrageous profit. For the Curator of Grain to exploit his position in that way was a crime against the empire. Paullus would be exiled, or executed, and the emperor left without backing in the Senate. He would buckle to Marcus’s Traditionalists, or invite a coup.
The grain revelation would have blunted the relentless pace of the famine as well. Marcus, having discovered this store, would have immediately dispersed it to the public to provide relief. If the wizard destroyed it instead… combined with the loss of this shipment from Egypt, the famine would rip holes through the city.
And yet, he needed those riots. Weeks of riots. The emperor could certainly hold out for two days if relief was near. When that grain arrived Marcus’s growing inferno would gutter and die. All of Rome’s suffering this year would have been for nothing.
Quintus’s death. For nothing.
Three hundred tons. Everything he had in the city. Marcus peered at the girl through narrowed eyes. He looked between her and the old wizard with growing suspicion. Exactly the amount he had on hand? It was too improbable. How did they know? What were they setting him up for?
“Why a tenth? That’s a very specific, and very convenient, amount.”
The girl seemed taken aback. “It doesn’t need to be exact. It’s possible to work with a bit less, but it will be a risk.”
“That wasn’t my question,” Marcus hissed at her. The shadows didn’t lay right across her face, they bent along alien lines. He stepped forward, leaning over the barbarians, pressing into their space. “Why a tenth? Why exactly everything? Who commands you?”
The girl bristled at his intrusion. Amazingly, he saw her hands curling into fists, as if she would fight him over this desiccated old man. She passed his questions on in low, angry tones. The wizard broke into a wide grin, and chortled his answer.
“The revered elder is not surprised that the amount to be sacrificed is meaningful to you. Such things happen when God turns His attention to a person. That is why all men hope to avoid God’s gaze, and only the insane practice magic. If some other man had caught His eye, perhaps fewer ships would have sailed, or more, so that the sacrifice would still be appropriate. Nonetheless, the price remains the same. All of it.”
Marcus clenched his teeth against the sudden feeling of exposure, of nakedness. Briefly, all existence centered on himself, and he existed only to titillate the perverse appetites of a monstrosity. He choked down rising bile.
“Who is this god of yours?”
“God is God. There is nothing but Him.”
“I am separate from him. I will deal with you, as one man with another. Do not speak of your god again.”
The girl’s eyes sparkled as she translated. She was enjoying this. She reveled in this perversion of natural order. This barbarism. The wizard shrugged in reply.
“As you wish. Shall we prepare a list of needed components?”
“I have not agreed to anything yet!” Marcus stepped back, his grip sweaty on his cane’s silver head. He took a deep breath to calm himself. Realized too late the pollution he inhaled. He gagged, choking on thick reek. From down the hall voices rose in conflict. Barked orders, angered protests, the disharmonies of strife.
“You should tell your men to stand down,” the girl translated. “It’s time for the revered elder to summon a monster, and your emperor will be greatly angered at any delay. He invites you to watch, while you consider your decision. Either way, God will be entertained.”
Marcus bent over hacking. He glared hate at the madman through watering eyes, then struggled out of the room, wracked with coughs. The girl gave him a finger-twinkling wave.
Marcus watched in dark satisfaction when the Ludus guards hoisted the wizard into his palanquin, the broken man twisting in pain. He smiled at the rising flames in the girl’s eyes as they manacled the wizard to his seat and bedecked him with a ridiculous costume. He followed the comical parade through the tunnel that connected the Ludus to the Colosseum. The noise of the humid warren beneath the Colosseum astounded him. The shrieking of animals and the bellowing of technicians battered his ears. An unbelievable stench assaulted his nostrils. When he finally climbed above ground, one limping stair at a time, he thanked the gods for the fresh heat of a Roman day.
Marcus watched the monster’s summoning from just inside the Colosseum’s western gate, the translator two paces behind him. He found himself begrudgingly impressed by the wizard’s poise. After a life spent performing for his warped god, this wizard knew showmanship. He snapped his cloak aside with flare. He teased the audience with slow draws of his blade, splitting his own skin with dramatic intensity. When a horrific presence coalesced in the sky above the arena, he relinquished the mob’s attention mutely, knowing his part in the play was done.
Much of his madness must be an act. If not all of it.
When the presence passed over the stands the spectators below snapped to attention. Snipes straightened, shoulders squared, eyes shone. When the monster took on form and substance it radiated magnificence. It landed by the wizard, sitting couchant at his side. Its black skin drank in the sunlight like Pluto’s abyss. It held its head high and crowed a proud challenge at the approaching gladiators. No eyes in that head, only a massive, curving beak. A lush mane of black feathers framed it, shimmered under the sun.
“That’s new…” muttered a Jew watching beside Marcus. Clearly a slave, but one who stood as if he belonged there. He scratched at his beard, salted with smatterings of grey.
“What is?” Marcus asked him.
The man nodded at the beast without looking at Marcus. “The mane. The previous monsters were completely bare.”
Marcus turned back to see the monster in flight, soaring on grand bat-like wings. It banked and dove, slipping effortlessly between thrusting spears, flashing between the men. Arcing lines of human blood popped in its wake, chasing slicing claws that dripped red. Marcus watched in wonder. It was a glorious beast.
Two men fell to its strikes before the first blow scored the beast–a glancing thrust that gashed a leg. More gladiators rushed to the fight, undaunted by the bodies bleeding out into the sand. They roared their challenges, and pride swelled Marcus’s chest. These were the avatars of Rome, the triumph of man over chaos. They played out the sacrifice that was asked of all men: the willingness to fight the horrors of the world for the preservation of civilization.
As a morality play, it was lost on the Hedonists. To them this was just bloodsport. That was why they so wantonly destroyed the fabric of the civilization that sheltered them. They’d lived inside society’s protective walls for so long they couldn’t see the foundations those walls were built on. For them, safety was implicit. Nothing had to be paid for in blood.
A trident gored the monster’s right flank. The monster tore the wielder open in reply, but the trident stayed firm in its body. Sticky, black blood slipped from the wound. A stink of spoiling flowers filled the air. Light spring pollen, weighed down with the rot of a wet autumn.
Marcus took in the arena, the vastness of the Colosseum rising above him. It was a testament to his people’s indomitability that they had made this thing. It was a brag to the world that Rome now caged this monster within herself. Rome would take the strongest, the most vicious abomination that nature or god could create. She would take it in, confine it, and destroy it utterly. Nothing stood before her might. This was the power of true civilization. To subdue nature and subject the uncivilized. To wrest order and propriety from the madness of life.
The beast stumbled now, losing flesh beneath steel blades. The men pressed their advantage. United in purpose, these gladiators carried themselves with the bearing of Roman nobility. Marcus smiled, lifting his head. He had feared the barbarian’s magic too much. It was vile, yes. It may consume him, or destroy him. That was acceptable, for he was only one man. For nine hundred years Rome had lived on these hills, nurturing her children. She did not live off goodwill and laughter. She lived on sacrifice and toil. Marcus’s ancestors had not forged an eternal city by shrinking from horrors when horrors must be faced. Marcus would not fail her now.
Even in death, the beast retained its dignity. Too weak to fly, too weak to lash out, it sat back on folded legs and bowed its head. It waited, seeping black fluid, for a noble end. A gladiator stepped forward and thrust a long sword through its neck.
The Colosseum shook with thunderous calls. Not the raucous cheering of a mob, though. This was the combined salutation of a proud people. Every man shouted approval, right hand outstretched in salute. The Praetorian Guardsmen held forth their swords. The entirety of the Colosseum bore glorious witness to the death throes of the grand beast.
The decaying pollen stench gushed from the monster, saturating the air, thickening the sky.
Marcus raised his own fist to his heart, then opened his hand as he extended it outward. Pride thrummed through his veins. He knew what he had to do. He needed further riots. He needed to invite the chaos within Rome itself, to remind everyone what it was that waited for them outside, looking in with covetous eyes, as Rome grew decadent and weak.
He did not particularly need to destroy Paullus. It would have been nice, but ultimately unnecessary. With last night’s loss of the Quirinal grain stores, soon even the Praetorians would be missing meals. When the flames of chaos raged out of control and the situation became untenable, the Praetorians would turn on the emperor. They would kill Pius and install a strong military leader. The head of the Traditionalist faction, for instance. A leader who would blunt the worst of the famine with the grain stores he’d hidden across Italy.
This had been the original plan, because Marcus did not take half-measures when Rome herself was endangered. The plot to discredit Paullus had always been a cover to gain the support of the less resolute–those like Gaius Maximus. Over time Marcus had grown infatuated with its cleverness, he now realized. He’d been seduced by the delicious thought of seeing Paullus broken in the Senate, abandoned by his faithless peers. But Marcus didn’t need that, in the end.
He would give his grain stores to the wizard and deal with whatever black consequences came with it as a Roman would. He would act because he was the only one left. Only he had the means to do what must be done. Only he could save the Eternal City.
He turned to the barbarian girl behind him. She stood cloaked in shadows, hard for him to see after watching the sun-blasted sand of the arena for so long.
“Do it,” he told her. “Name what you need, and you’ll have it. But you start now.”
The girl grinned. In his sun-blinded vision, all he could see was a crescent arc of white teeth. It glimmered with the same madness that shone from the wizard, and for a brief moment he wasn’t sure which barbarian he was looking at.
“As you wish.”
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First line of next week’s chapter: The hive of the Suburra buzzes with frenetic activity as its residents prepare for the incursion of the Praetorian Guard.
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Word-count of chapter 20 deleted content: 424